Gavin Hawthorn: sending him to prison does not make us any safer

Gavin Hawthorn: 13 convictions for drink driving

News that Gavin Hawthorn has recently been convicted of drink driving yet again has caused oodles of outrage in the media. Hawthorn has already killed four people in two separate accidents. In 2004 he was convicted of manslaughter over the death of his friend Lance Fryer and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released in 2013 and has now been caught drink-driving again – for the 13th time. On this occasion Judge Johnston sentenced him to six months home detention and disqualified him from driving for two years.

The headlines were horrified. Stuff stated it like this: Recidivist drink-driver Gavin Hawthorn convicted again, leading to call for permanent driving ban. Newshub harrumphed that it was ‘Appalling’: Porirua man Gavin Hawthorn escapes jail after 12th drink-driving conviction. The Herald highlighted: NZ’s worst drink driver caught drunk behind the wheel again. Duncan Garner was especially incensed arguing that:

“This judge has failed to keep us safe as New Zealanders. We’ve been let down by his profession once again. He has let us down, now we are in harm’s way.” He went on to say the case was an example of why the public “have little confidence in the justice system”.

Blaming judges is misguided and myopic.  This is what Garth McVicar and the senseless sentencing trust have been doing for years. All that has achieved is a burgeoning prison population and a crisis in capacity. At $100,000 per prisoner, per year and a reoffending rate of 60% within two years of release, clearly this is a failed strategy – and a massive waste of taxpayer money.

Keeping us safe

The justification for all this moral outrage is the dubious assumption that sending ‘dangerous’ people to prison ‘keeps us safe’. Does it? Let’s look at the facts.

Gavin Hawthorn killed his last victim in 2003. Between 2003 and 2017, another 5,402 people have died on New Zealand roads – an average of 360 people a year – or nearly one every day. Half of these deaths are caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or both.

The point is that most of these people died during the ten years that Hawthorn was in prison. Clearly his incarceration did not make us any safer. Giving the judge a hard time for not sending him to prison on his current conviction does not change this reality.

So, what’s the solution? The only intelligent comments in the media came from Andrew Dickens on NewstalkZB who asked rather quaintly: What to do with our drinkiest drink driver?  He argued with considerable insight that:

“Indefinite incarceration and licence deprivation is not what this man needs. What he needs is to STOP FREAKING DRINKING.”

Drug courts

Dickens’ answer to the problems posed by the likes of Gavin Hawthorn is to put him into a drug court (in New Zealand known as AODTC – Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Courts). To be eligible, defendants must be alcohol or drug dependent and facing a prison sentence. A treatment plan for each participant is developed by the judge, taking into account the views of treatment providers, support workers and lawyers; it involves rehabilitation, counselling, drug-testing, community service and making amends to victims.

Dickens describes the process like this:

“They’re a three-phase, 18-month-long programme designed for high-needs and high-risk addicts who are facing prison, or who have tried but failed treatment programmes in the past.”

Drug courts have the potential to help thousands of offenders, not just drink drivers. And there is no shortage of available candidates in New Zealand. In 2011, judges told the Law Commission that 80% of all offending was alcohol and drug related. In 2017, Northland district court  judge, Greg Davis, who sees a lot of methamphetamine related crime, said up to 90% of all offending was related to issues with addiction.

Currently, the only two drug courts in the country are both in Auckland. Hawthorn is serving his sentence of Home Detention in Paraparaumu – so a drug court in Wellington would be helpful. We need such courts in all our major cities.

Compulsory AOD assessment

Another strategy is available to target drink drivers in particular – one that also involves assessment and treatment. Currently out of 20,000 people convicted of this offence each year, only 5% – those disqualified indefinitely – are required to have an alcohol and drug assessment to see if they have their drinking under control before getting their driver’s licence back. Many of the remainder are sent to prison – just like Gavin Hawthorn. If any drink driver who incurred a second conviction was required by law to have an AOD assessment before their disqualification could be lifted, fully half of the 20,000 drink drivers would be assessed. As a result, there would be a lot less people in prison.

An evaluation of the NZ drug courts shows they also reduce imprisonment – 282 participants have been kept out of prison during the six years the two Auckland courts have been operating.

So if the government implemented these two strategies, this would shift the focus of our justice system away from punishing alcohol and drug addicted offenders towards treating them instead.  This would surely help Justice Minister, Andrew Little, get closer to the Government goal of reducing the prison population by 30%. Maybe it would even moderate the media to tone down their moral outrage.

Qualified addiction counsellors not wanted in NZ prisons

addictionIn April last year, Radio New Zealand reported that the Corrections Department was paying for non-existent alcohol and drug counsellors. The story omitted the fact that most of the AOD counsellors who do work in the prisons are not actually qualified – at least not in addiction treatment.

The qualifications required to work as an AOD counsellor in prison are described in tender documents issued by Corrections recently. The documents relate to Drug Treatment Units (DTUs), the prison programme that inmates with addictions are required to attend. The tender states:

“DTU programme clinical staff and the DTU clinical manager will have a relevant qualification in psychology, counselling, psychotherapy or similar.

no-experienceRemarkably, the document does not specify that the ‘relevant qualification’ has to be a graduate degree. Nor does it state that clinicians require a qualification in the assessment and treatment of addictive disorders.

Currently an AOD agency called CareNZ has contracts with Corrections to run eight of the nine DTUs. CareNZ also has contracts with a number of DHBs up and down the country to provide addiction treatment to the public in community clinics. The DHB contracts are a great more specific. For example, CareNZ’s contract with the Waikato DHB says:

“Clinicians employed to deliver these services must have a level VII (graduate) AOD specific qualification.”

Clearly, the DHB’s want value for money; they want professional clinicians to treat addicts – ones who are specifically qualified in the treatment of addictive disorders. But Corrections doesn’t seem to care. Perhaps that’s because their clients are only prisoners – so any old counsellor with any old qualification will do. If that’s their attitude, no wonder drug treatment in prison doesn’t work.

Review of DTU’s under CareNZ

And it doesn’t work. Hundreds of inmates are put through these DTU programmes each year and they reduce reoffending by less than 5%. Mind you, 11 of the 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison don’t work. Corrections management are concerned about this because in 2011, Government set the Department a goal to reduce reoffending by 25% by June this year.

carenzThe Department seems to think the poor performance of the DTUs is CareNZ’s fault. They even initiated an evaluation of CareNZ’s performance by an independent consulting company, Julian King & Associates.   Amazingly, the independent review reported that CareNZ was doing fine. See Corrections pays consultant to whitewash failure of rehabilitation programme.

So when RNZ reported that Corrections was paying for non-existent counsellors, Corrections’ Southern Regional Commissioner, Ben Clark, spun the story like this. He said:

“If we had cause for concern that Care NZ weren’t delivering an effective service to our offenders, and weren’t giving the taxpayer good value for money, then absolutely we would look to put that money elsewhere, but so far we have no evidence of that being the case.”

Less than 12 months later, Corrections has decided to put the taxpayers’ money elsewhere. They’ve put the DTU contracts up for tender.  The tender process is nearly complete and my sources tell me that six of CareNZ’s eight contracts have now been offered to other AOD treatment agencies. But as described above, neither CareNZ nor any of the new treatment agencies will not be required to use qualified or experienced clinicians.

Prison inmates have extra needs

comorbidThis makes no sense whatsoever. There are now over 10,000 people in prison in New Zealand and up to 90% of them have problems with substance abuse. At least 45% of inmates also have underlying personality disorders, mental health problems, and learning disabilities. They often use alcohol and drugs to alleviate the symptoms associated with these disorders.

Not forgetting that addictions are hard to treat at the best of times; treating inmates with coexisting disorders is even tougher. The counsellors who work in prison therefore need to be as qualified, if not more qualified and more experienced, than AOD clinicians in the community. At the very least, they need to have a graduate degree in the assessment and treatment of addictive disorders; and they need at least five years’ experience working with addicts in the community before starting work in a prison.

So what’s happened is that Corrections has used CareNZ as a scapegoat. That particular agency’s role in the prison system has been cut, but nothing will change if the clinicians doing the counselling can’t cut the mustard.  To use another analogy, changing agencies is akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; unless the right people are sitting in the right chairs, the ship is still going to sink.

What does Tony Robertson have in common with Graeme Burton, William Bell & the Beast of Blenheim?

BlessieTony Robertson was sentenced to eight years in prison for indecently assaulting a five year old girl in 2005. He was considered a high risk prisoner and the parole board declined to release him on four separate occasions.  He was eventually released in December 2013 at the end of his sentence. Although he was not on parole, he was subject to ‘release conditions’ which means he was on an electronic bracelet for six months.

After five months of relative freedom, he ran over Blessie Gotingco (left) in his BMW, raped her and then stabbed her to death. Former Ombudsman, Mel Smith (below left), was asked to conduct an enquiry to find out what went wrong. His report concluded:

“Robertson, and only Robertson, can be held responsible for what happened to Mrs Gotingco”.

Mel smithAt the same time, Smith made 27 recommendations identifying those areas where the management of high risk offenders such as Mr Robertson could be improved. That’s weird. Corrections did nothing wrong – but here’s 27 things they could have done better. That doesn’t add up does it?

A few of those 27 recommendations related to the pathetic attempts made by Corrections to rehabilitate Robertson. Apparently, he was involved in more than 50 incidents during his time in prison and was classified as a high-risk prisoner. But as Smith points out in his report, high-risk prisoners are not permitted to attend rehabilitation programmes. Robertson also denied he was a sex offender. Smith says Corrections refuses to place such offenders into treatment until they accept that they have accepted their guilt. He came to the conclusion that…

“Robertson… entered prison a high-risk offender and left a high-risk offender and received practically no help, albeit of his own choosing, throughout his incarceration.”

Of his own choosing? That’s weird. His sentence planner reported in 2010:Robertson2

“Robertson stated he is willing to participate (in psychological counselling), saying ‘I just want to get out of here. I think this will help me with my board hearing’.”

As for taking part in child sex offender treatment, he stated: “I’m willing to participate because of the board.”He went on: “I don’t even need to do it. I’m not like that [not a child sex offender].”

On drug and alcohol treatment, he is recorded as saying: “I don’t need it, but I’m willing to do it to stay out of jail. I’d climb Mt Everest to stay out.” And of participating in violence treatment, he said: “I would do it because I’ve got a bit of an anger problem. A programme would help because I’ve never had anything [any programmes] before, and nothing else helps.”

Despite this apparent willingness, Corrections did not let him see a psychologist until June 2012, more than 14 months later. They had seven sessions together. Mel Smith wrote:

“The psychologist reported that Robertson was enthusiastic about getting treatment and eager to participate in the sessions. He completed all the activities asked of him between sessions (and) found he had tried to implement suggested behavioural strategies in daily prison life.”

So Robertson wanted help and was ‘enthusiastic about getting treatment’. But after the seventh session, the psychologist recommended a break of three to four months so that Robertson could demonstrate he was able to practice these strategies before scheduling further sessions. Smith then wrote:

“The inquiry could find no record the psychologist or anyone else from Corrections’ psychological services followed up on whether he had succeeded or failed in putting these new skills into practice, or whether he wanted to participate in additional sessions with the same eagerness previously demonstrated. Robertson had no more sessions while in prison.”

So instead of concluding it was Corrections fault that Robertson received so little help, Smith got out a bucket of whitewash and claimed that…

“Corrections made reasonable efforts to … provide him with suitable rehabilitation.”

Based on the information in his own report, that statement is simply not true. Robertson was in prison for eight years and had a grand total of seven counselling sessions.  Seven sessions in eight years. That doesn’t add up either, does it?

Other high risk offenders

WilsonRobertson is not the only high-risk offender who has not been allowed to attend rehabilitation in prison. Stewart Murray Wilson (referred to by the media as the beast of Blenheim) was a prolific sex offender and was in prison for 17 years before he was released in 2015. He saw a psychologist only four times and Corrections also failed to put him into a sex offender’s programme because he denied his offending.

BurtonGraeme Burton (right), a known drug addict, was in prison for 13 years, but was never required to attend drug treatment, either in prison or on release. Six months after he was released in 2006, he killed Karl Kuchenbecker. The then chief executive of Corrections, Barry Matthews had the gall to declare “There’s no blood on my hands”.

BellWilliam Bell (left) is another drug addict and high-risk offender who never attended any rehabilitation. A few months after he was released in 2001, he murdered three people and left Susan Couch with permanent injuries. Corrections tried to avoid taking any responsibility for anything, but ten years later accepted that they had failed to monitor Bell properly in the community and paid Susan Couch $300,000.

Blessie’s husband, Antonio Gotingco, seems to be following in Susan Couch’s footsteps. He wants to sue Corrections for its poor management of Tony Robertson and has started a Givealittle page asking for donations. Maybe that will add up to something (currently $144,000). If nothing else, perhaps it will highlight the need for Corrections to take more responsibility and accept that high risk offenders like Tony Robertson, Graeme Burton, William Bell and Stewart Wilson need to attend rehabilitation in prison.

Corrections pays consultant to whitewash failure of rehabilitation programme

CareNZ former CEO, Kathryn Leafe

Earlier this month, Radio New Zealand reported that the Corrections Department was paying for alcohol and drug counsellors that don’t exist. The reason they don’t exist is because CareNZ, the alcohol and drug agency contracted by Corrections to provide these counsellors, has been unable to find sufficient qualified staff. Care NZ Chairman, Michael Bird, told RNZ that:

 “Prisons are tough places for people to work in and there was a lot of churn amongst his staff”. 

“I fully admit that there are problems within the staffing of our organisation.”

There are nine Drug Treatment Units (DTUs) in prisons up and down the country, eight of them run by CareNZ. Diane Robinson used to work as a counsellor in the DTU at Springhill prison. She told the NZ Herald that because of understaffing, she sometimes worked alone with 30 male inmates.

Diane robinson
Diane Robinson, former AOD counsellor at Springhill prison

Ms Robinson said that CareNZ was supposed to supply 4.5 full-time counsellors at Springhill but in the two years she was there, they were almost never fully staffed. After Ms Robinson left, two other counsellors at Springhill felt so unsafe they resigned. The CareNZ culture is so toxic that the chief executive, Kathryn Leafe (pictured above) and three regional managers were ‘let go’ shortly thereafter.

Altogether, CareNZ employs about 18 AOD counsellors in the DTUs and Corrections pays the agency around $150,000 for each one (although CareNZ only pays the counsellor about $50,000).  If they don’t fill these vacancies, CareNZ doesn’t have to pay the money back.

So where does the money go? It seems much of it is spent hiring expensive lawyers and making massive payouts after its employees take personal grievances against the agency because of the shabby way they have been treated.

julian king
Julian King

Because of these staffing problems, the DTUs are ineffective; the Department’s annual report for 2015 said they reduced reoffending by only 4.8%. To find out what the problem was Corrections contracted Julian King and Associates, an Auckland-based consultancy firm to evaluate how well the DTUs were working.  In February 2015, Julian King produced a 54 page report. It said:

“DTUs generally reflect most of the identified features of good practice, in full or with minor exceptions.” 

In regard to staffing, it said: All DTU’s meet the review criteria for qualified, competent and supervised provider staff. Provider staff have qualifications such as bachelor’s degrees and/or diplomas in counselling, addictions, psychology, social sciences, social services and/or social work. They are members, or registered practitioners, of the Addiction Practitioners Association Aotearoa and the New Zealand Association for Counsellors.”

The fact that CareNZ has consistently operated these programs with insufficient staff, or that there has been ‘a lot of churn’, was not mentioned in Julian King’s report.  That’s a serious omission, but what was mentioned raises other concerns: a diploma is not an adequate qualification for someone working with prisoners who have serious addictions; nor is a graduate qualification in social sciences of much help. Counsellors working with addicts in prison need a specific qualification – one in the assessment and treatment of alcohol and drug dependence – plus about five years of experience in the field.

I wrote to Corrections asking a number of questions about these issues:

If all DTU’s meet the review criteria for qualified, competent and supervised provider staff…

1) What were the review criteria for assessing whether or not provider staff were qualified, competent and supervised?

Corrections answer: The DTU review was not an audit activity so staff and participant files were not reviewed to assess compliance.

2) Did the review include questions about CareNZ staff shortages or staff turnover?

Corrections answer: The review did not include questions about CareNZ staff shortages or staff turnover.

3) What was the minimum level of qualification considered appropriate (for the purposes of the review) to be working as an alcohol and drug clinician in a DTU. Was a minimum level established?

Corrections answer: There were no minimum qualifications levels established.

 4) According to the review, how many and what percentage of CareNZ staff working in DTU’s have a graduate level qualification (specifically) in alcohol and drug studies/addictions?

Corrections answer: The information was not specifically recorded.

5) According to the review, how many and what percentage of CareNZ staff working in the DTU’s are registered as competent practitioners with DAPAANZ (the addiction counsellors’ professional body)?

Corrections answer: This information was not specifically recorded.

 6) According to the review, what is the minimum number of years of prior experience working as an alcohol and drug clinician considered appropriate by CareNZ prior to working in a DTU?

Corrections answer: This information was out of scope of the review.

7) According to the review, what is the average number of years’ experience (as alcohol and drug clinicians) of CareNZ staff working in the DTUs? 

Corrections answer: This information was out of scope of the review.

What this shows is that Julian King never asked any meaningful questions about staffing – mind you, Corrections probably didn’t want him to ask – and so his report was a total white wash. King appears to have been entirely unaware that CareNZ was taking money off Corrections for counsellors it had never employed; or that many of the counsellors CareNZ does employ do not have qualifications in addiction treatment and/or have little or no experience.  King’s report is so superficial, it failed to reveal that Corrections is paying CareNZ $5 million a year to provide a programme it is unable to deliver- at least not effectively.

What’s going on in the DTUs is damaging to all concerned. It’s totally demoralising to place inexperienced, underqualified counsellors into a potentially hostile environment which requires years of experience to deal with; it is also dangerous for the counsellors, especially females, to be in units on their own with 30 men. No wonder counsellors resign and CareNZ has so many personal grievance cases to deal with.

On the other side of the coin, it is equally unfair for the prisoners to be given second-rate addiction treatment in programs which are permanently short staffed. Ultimately, it is the taxpayer who is being ripped off by all of this.

Mind you, what’s going on in the DTUs is just the tip of the iceberg. See: 11 out of 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison not working – at a cost of $159 million a year.

No wonder reoffending continues unabated and the prison population is at an all-time high.


Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’ – especially to Judith Collins


According to this New Zealand Herald story, Rise in reoffence rates ‘puzzling’, the Corrections Department has told Judith Collins it is struggling to understand why reoffending continues to rise in New Zealand.

The background is that in 2011 the Government set Corrections a target – to reduce reoffending by 25% by 2017. In 2014, the Department claimed it had achieved a 12% reduction and was halfway to its target. Its progress has now fallen to 8%. The Herald says:

Corrections officials said the reversal of progress towards the target was “puzzling” because rehabilitation programmes had been producing “excellent” results… “

This is simply not true. In fact it is a blatant lie, contradicted by a statement in Appendix Two of the Department’s 2015 annual report (p 134) where it admits:

“The rates of some programmes reported are small and below the level of statistical significance…”

The reality is that eleven of the twelve rehabilitation programmes run by Corrections are producing small, statistically insignificant, results.

Corrections officials in denial

One of the basic tenets of rehabilitation involves learning to take responsibility for one’s mistakes; this requires some degree of insight and personal honesty. It is ironic that Ray Smith and his management team expect criminals to front up and take responsibility for their behaviour when he and his team are not capable of it. They are lying to the Minister and to the public.

Not surprisingly, Judith Collins has swallowed what Ray Smith and his officials are telling her hook, line and sinker. Collins said there were a number of reasons why progress had slowed…

“In particular, Corrections was now dealing with a more challenging group of offenders. This was a result of police increasingly diverting less serious cases out of the justice system. Corrections had been left with fewer first-time and low-risk criminals, and a larger proportion of people who were more likely to reoffend.”

This is also not true. The Department has always focused its rehabilitation programmes on high-risk offenders who are more likely to offend. It is only in the last few years that first-time offenders and low-risk criminals have even become eligible to attend these programmes – allowing Collins to claim that the number of offenders engaged in rehabilitation programmes is now at a three-year high. So is the prison population which, in November last year, reached an all-time high of 9171 inmates.

The fact that these rehabilitation programmes are not working should come as no surprise. Virtually the same story hit the headlines in 2006  when Corrections revealed that the Straight Thinking programme actually increased the likelihood of reoffending instead of reducing it. Simon Power was the Opposition spokesman for Corrections at the time; for months on end, he kept calling for an inquiry into the way Corrections was being run.

As a result of all the publicity, Corrections scrapped most of its programmes and designed brand new ones. One of those is called the Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme or MIRP.  I predicted this would make no difference in a blog in March 2012 – see The MIRP doesn’t work.  Four years later, the Department’s Annual Report shows that none of these new programmes are working.

The two broken legs analogy

one broken.jpgThe reason is obvious. Those who end up in prison tend to come from backgrounds of deprivation and abuse, and suffer from mental health problems and addictions. A useful analogy is that are emotionally and socially crippled – the psychological equivalent of having two broken legs. Rehabilitation in prison is akin to placing a plaster cast on one leg. The other leg only gets a plaster cast when the prisoner is released – in the process of reintegration.

Unfortunately, the Corrections Department doesn’t have a reintegration service. It spends $160 million a year on rehabilitation programmes but only $10 million on reintegration services – which are farmed out to non-governmental organisations. The reintegration of prisoners is generally left in the hands of volunteers.

The reality is that placing a plaster cast on one broken leg when both of them are broken is not going to help. The prisoner still can’t stand up, let alone walk on the straight and narrow path that society expects. Given the lack of resources put into reintegration, it is no wonder that the Department’s rehabilitation programmes don’t work and prisoners continue to reoffend. What is really strange is that Ray Smith and Judith Collins find this puzzling – when, in fact, it’s totally predictable.

11 out of 12 rehabilitation programmes in prison not working – at a cost of $159 million a year

PrisonEleven of the twelve prison rehabilitation programmes currently offered by Corrections have almost no impact on reoffending rates according to the Department’s own figures.  As a result, the Department has little hope of achieving its stated goal to reduce reoffending by 25% by the year 2017.

Eighty per cent of prisoners in New Zealand commit their offences under the influence of alcohol and drugs. In response, successive governments have slowly increased the availability of addiction treatment in prison by setting up drug treatment units (DTUs). In 2009, there were six  such units.

Evaluation process

That year, the Department evaluated the effectiveness of the DTU programme and claimed they reduced an inmate’s risk of reoffending by about 13%. At the time, that made drug treatment the most effective rehabilitation programme in the entire prison system. There are now nine DTUs but since then, their effectiveness has declined dramatically. The Department’s Annual Report for 2015, shows they now reduce reoffending by only 5%.

Even that figure is optimistic – for a number of reasons. First the 5% reduction only applies to the first 12 months after the prisoner is released.  The Department is too embarrassed to publish figures which would no doubt show that two years after release, there is no reduction at all, at least not one that is statistically significant.

Statistical significance means the outcome is caused by attendance at the rehabilitation programme rather than being the result of random variation. However, reductions of 5% or less are unlikely to be significant – and hidden in the Appendix at the end of the Annual report, the Department acknowledges:

“The rates of some rehabilitation programmes reported are small and below the level of statistical significance.”

In fact the rates for 11 of the Department’s 12 prison programmes are small – averaging between 4 and 6%. In 2015, only one programme (the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation programme for violent offenders) made any significant difference – reducing reoffending by 17% (see chart below). That appears to be a statistically significant result.

Prisoner interventions Reimprisonment

(12 month follow)


(12 month follow)

Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation programme -9.2% -17.1%
Special Treatment Unit – Child Sex Offender prog -2.2 % -4.1%
Medium Intensity Rehabilitation programme -5.2% -4.2%
Young Offenders programme -10.6% -6.7%
Drug Treatment Unit programme (3 months) -5.3% -5.0%
Drug Treatment Unit programme (6 months) -5.4% -4.8%
Short Motivational programme -2.6% -5.7%
Trade & technical training -5.2 % -5.0%
Employment-related training -4.4% -4.9%
Short gains -0.7% -3.8%
Release to Work -4.4% -4.2%
Out of Gate -6.2% -5.2%

Improper matching

These poor results are partly the result of dodgy methodology used by Corrections. In order to measure whether a particular programme made any difference, prisoners who attended that programme need to be compared with a control group that didn’t. As the Department notes:

“Outcomes are measured by… comparing the rates of reconviction and reimprisonment for offenders who completed a rehabilitative intervention with the rates of a matched group who did not complete that intervention.”

‘Matching’ means the group of offenders who completed a particular intervention had the same, or very similar, characteristics to a group of inmates who did not.  People in the two groups need to be roughly the same age, the same sex, have the same length of sentence, the same risk of reoffending, the same support on release and so on. Otherwise they are not ‘matched’ and any apparent improvement by prisoners in the group undergoing rehabilitation is random rather than statistically significant.

When it comes to matching prisoners who receive drug treatment, prisoners in the group that don’t receive treatment (the control group) need to have equally serious addictions as those who do receive treatment (the intervention group).

Of course it would be pretty stupid, not to mention unethical, for Corrections to refuse treatment to a group of offenders with severe addictions just so they could use them as a control group. So what the Department does is compare a group of prisoners with addictions with a group of offenders that don’t have addictions, but have a similar risk of reoffending (according to a mathematical formula called the RoC*RoI). But if addicts are ‘matched’ with offenders who are not addicts, the two groups are not matched at all. In fact they could hardly be more different.

This means the Department’s claim that drug treatment in prison reduces reoffending by 5% in comparison with a group of offenders who did not attend treatment is fabricated nonsense .

Reintegration strategy missing

But that’s still only half the story.  In 2011, in Flying Blind, I made the case that more rehabilitation programmes were needed in prison. But I also said that Corrections does not have a reintegration strategy; and that providing rehabilitation in prison is a waste of taxpayer’s money if inmates have no accommodation or are not supported when they get out.

This is especially true of offenders with addictions. If they attend treatment in prison but are then released into the same impoverished, binge drinking, drug taking environment that helped create or cause the problem in the first place, guess what happens. They relapse – and then they reoffend.

In 2015, Corrections spent $169 million on rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, but only about $10 million of this went into reintegration.  That means $159 million was spent on rehabilitation. This is almost a total waste of taxpayer’s money if the Department does not have a realistic, financially supported reintegration strategy. It didn’t have one in 2011. Five years later, it still doesn’t have one.

It was also 2011 when the Government introduced the goal of reducing reoffending by 25% – which was supposed to reduce the total number of people in prison by about 600. But in June 2016, Police Minister Judith Collins was forced to admit that, after five years, it had been reduced by only 6.7%, and the prison population was at an all-time high of 9,400 inmates. Clearly, the Department’s rehabilitation programmes in prison are not working.

Alcoholic with 20 convictions for drink driving keeps getting his licence back

PrisonIn February 2014, I was asked to interview Brian Hart, a 58 year old chronic alcoholic on his 20th conviction for drink driving. My job was to figure out how bad his drinking problem was and what treatment he needed. I discovered that as a child he had been physically abused and eventually abandoned by his parents. As a result he had long-standing personality problems. He started drinking at age 16 and by the time I met him, he had been in and out of court for 40 years. In addition to 20 convictions for drink driving, he had over 200 other convictions for a variety of offences and had been sent to prison 33 times.

It was blatantly obvious that Mr Hart had a drinking problem but despite 40 years of court appearances, not one judge had told him to go to rehab.  They just sent him to prison and disqualified him from driving. His offences were all relatively minor so his prison sentences (and his disqualifications) were always quite short – usually 12 months or less. Even in prison he had never been given any help.

When I interviewed him it was very clear that if he was ever going to stop drinking or stop reoffending, he needed to attend a long-term residential treatment programme. I recommended he should go to Moana House for a minimum of 12 months.

Indefinite disqualification

Mr Hart has had a hard life. But the justice system has not only failed to help him, it has also allowed him to continue driving, which affects the rest of us. Because his prison sentences were roughly the same length as his period of disqualification (usually one year), by the time he got out of prison, his disqualification was already over and he was allowed to drive again.  That’s because his disqualification always started the same day he went to prison – not after he got out.

Drunk carAnd that’s not the only loophole in the law.  Currently, the legislation allows drink drivers given a fixed period of disqualification to automatically get their licence back at the end of the disqualification – without being assessed by an alcohol and drug counsellor.  See Legal loophole in drink driving laws. That’s why so many drink drivers – about 10,000 a year – reoffend.

As the law currently stands, the only time a drink driver has to see a clinician to be assessed is if the judge mandates him into treatment or gives him an ‘indefinite’ disqualification.  Mr Hart was disqualified indefinitely for the first time in 2002 – on his 16th conviction for drink-driving. A year or so later (after serving time in prison) he approached an approved alcohol and drug assessment centre hoping to get his licence reinstated.

Mr Hart was required to attend group therapy twice a week and individual counselling once a week to help him stop drinking.  After only four weeks, his clinicians told the NZTA that Mr Hart had completed his ‘treatment’ and should get his driver’s licence back. Bizarre as it seems, the Agency agreed.  They ignored the fact that Mr Hart was an alcoholic with a long history of offending  – and it should be no surprise that he relapsed a few weeks later. Mr Hart has now incurred another four convictions for drink-driving. It’s amazing he hasn’t killed anyone.

Incompetent assessors

drink driving signNew Zealand allows these offenders back on the road far too easily.  The vast majority of the 30,000 Kiwis convicted of drink driving every year are disqualified for a finite period – usually between six and 12 months. They get their licence back at the end of their disqualification with no questions asked – even if they spent the entire time in prison. The only ones that have to undergo an assessment (and treatment if required) to get their licence back are the 1,500 drivers disqualified indefinitely each year. These guys are by definition, high-risk recidivist offenders.

After his indefinite disqualification, Mr Hart was assessed by a doctor and a psychologist – both of whom had an interest in addiction but may have had only limited qualifications and experience in the assessment and treatment of alcoholics.  The fact that they recommended Mr Hart should get his licence back after 16 convictions for drink-driving and a one-month intervention is bewildering. But this kind of incompetence is standard practice. More than half of the 100 clinicians who have been approved to conduct these assessments for NZTA up and down the country are not registered as competent alcohol and drug clinicians. For more on this subject, see Government agencies use ‘incompetent’ counsellors to assess recidivist drink drivers.

The definition of insanity

So what happened to Mr Hart when he appeared in court on his 20th conviction?  Did the judge send him to rehab?  Of course not – he was sent to prison again – for the 34th time.  This is an expensive strategy. As a lifetime offender, Mr Hart has already cost the taxpayer about $3 million. Sending him to prison doesn’t help Mr Hart and, since he keeps getting his licence back, it doesn’t protect society either.

As a repeat drink driver, the worst that might be said about Mr Hart is that he is a ‘bloody idiot’. But it’s not all his fault.  The legislation that allows him – and hundreds of other repeat offenders – to get their licences back so easily is full of loopholes.  Here’s another example: Serious drink-drivers slip through legal loophole. These loopholes need to be blocked.

InsanityBut it’s equally important that judges realise they’ve been perpetuating the problem for years by consistently failing to mandate repeat drink drivers into rehab. Einstein described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.  Mr Hart might be a bloody idiot.  But the judges who keep sending him to prison thinking that will change his behaviour must surely be insane.

Public protection orders – Collins can’t count

In response to the media hype about Murray Wilson being released in Wanganui, Justice Minister Judith Collins has just introduced a new Bill allowing the imposition of public protection orders on child sex offenders and violent criminals. This will enable authorities to keep them in prison after they’ve finished their sentence – or return them to prison if they’ve already been released.

Section 9 of the new Bill says that for any application to keep someone in prison, there has to be “a very high risk of imminent serious sexual or violent offending by the respondent.” The Corrections Department assesses the risk of reoffending using a mathematical formula known as the RoCRoI (Risk of Conviction x Risk of Imprisonment).  A score on the RoCRoI of .7 or above means the prisoner has a 70% risk of reoffending – which is classified by the Department as ‘high risk’. A score between .3 and .7 (30% to 70%) is considered medium risk and a score of .3 or below is considered low risk (30% or less).

Dubious mathematics

This is where it gets interesting.   Judith Collins, says the proposed legislation will only apply to “a very small number of extremely dangerous people” – between 5 and 12 offenders over a ten year period. Clearly maths is not Ms Collins strong point. Approximately 7,250 inmates are released from prison each year (most after serving only short sentences). In 2011, 28.9% of these prisoners were classified as having a “high risk” of reoffending – that’s a colossal 2,095 “high risk” prisoners released into the street every year. Only 5.3% had a RoCRoI score of .9 or above.  That’s 384 prisoners released each year classified as “very high risk”.

What that means is that over a 10 year period, approximately 3,840 released prisoners will meet the criteria of “very high risk”. However, Murray Wilson is not one of them. Murray Wilson’s lawyer, Andrew McKenzie says Wilson’s RoCRoI is only .48 – which means he is assessed by Corrections as having a 48% risk of reoffending. That puts him in the “medium risk” category.

His true risk may be even lower than that. Victoria University professor, Tony Ward, a clinical psychologist with expertise in sexual offenders says that given Mr Wilson’s age, he was unlikely to reoffend. Prof Ward said: “The reoffending rate for very high risk people over 60 is about six per cent.” That would mean Wilson was in fact “very low risk”.

In other words, a sex offender like Murray Wilson doesn’t even meet the criteria for these protection orders and all the publicity about him being a “high risk” offender is absolute nonsense. What this seems to mean is that if these public protection orders become law,  they can be applied to virtually anyone in prison – even those assessed at low or medium risk.  One has to conclude it’s not crime or prisoners who are out of control in New Zealand, it’s the media and unscrupulous politicians like Judith Collins who will go to almost any length to ramp up public hysteria so government can draft ever more draconian laws.  It won’t be long before we need yet another new prison.

The MIRP doesn’t work

The Government has set 10 targets for the public sector over the next three to five years. One of those targets is a reduction in criminal reoffending. The responsibility for this clearly falls on the Corrections Department – which currently provides a number of rehabilitation programmes focussed on different aspects of offending such as anti-social thinking,  drug addiction or a propensity for violence.

Most offenders are referred to the MIRP (Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme) which is available both in prison and to offenders in the community.  The MIRP was introduced by Corrections in 2008 and replaced a programme called Straight Thinking which had been the cornerstone of the Department’s rehabilitation efforts for years. The Department’s website says:  “The aim of (Straight Thinking) is to assist offenders address one of the main causes of their offending – that is the lack of critical reasoning required for social integration”. 

Between 2000 and 2006, over 10,000 offenders were required by Corrections to attend Straight Thinking.  The problem was – it didn’t work. The Department cancelled it in 2006 after an evaluation found it increased the likelihood of offending rather than reducing it.

The flaws in the programme 

One of Straight Thinking’s flaws was that it was a cognitive skills programme requiring better than average literacy skills – a bit of  a rarity among those in prison.  According to Corrections executive prison manager, Dr Brendan Anstiss, such programmes ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’.   And yet the Department went on to introduce the MIRP – described on its website as: “A generic programme to teach offenders how to alter the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that led to their offending and assist them to develop strategies for maintaining any positive changes made”. 

This sounds remarkably similar to the description of the Straight Thinking programme it replaced. In 2010, the Department completed an initial evaluation which indicated the MIRP reduced subsequent re-imprisonment by 2%. The Department seemed to think this was a good outcome – the Annual Report for 2010 described the result like this:

“The  results reflect a period of delivery (2008-09) during which this programme was rapidly expanded across the country, involving considerable training and support provided to the programme delivery workforce, which suggests that, once fully bedded in, this programme will produce significantly positive outcomes”.  

One of the Department’s critics, Roger Brooking, was not so sure.  In Flying Blindhow the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, Mr Brooking wrote: “This sounds like more managerial spin. The reality is that the MIRP is just another cognitive skills programme, which according to Dr Brendan Anstiss ‘have at best a modest effective on recidivism’.  In that it doesn’t treat drug and alcohol problems, it seems doubtful that it will be much more effective than the programme it replaced.”

Mr Brooking was right. The programme is now bedded in and the Department’s Annual Report for 2011  (on page 16) shows the MIRP is no more effective than the programme it replaced.   Although there is a small reduction in reoffending in the first 12 months, after two years, the reduction in the rate of imprisonment by those completing the programme is reported at 0.0%.  It has no long term benefit.

Corrections Department’s double standard

In other words, if the Government is to achieve any reduction in re-offending, it will not be achieved by the Corrections Department. Government will have to rely almost entirely on Serco which currently runs the Mt Eden prison and will soon be given the task of running the new prison at Wiri.  Making sure that Serco performs better than Corrections, the private provider will be punished by the Department if they don’t.  The NZ Herald reported:  “Serco will face stiff financial penalties if it does not meet rehabilitation targets – which will be set at 10 % lower than public prisons.”

Serco (but not Corrections) also faces penalties if prisoners escape – they had to cough up $150,000 to Corrections in February when a prisoner escaped from Mt Eden – even though two prisoners escaped from Corrections prisons on the same day. It seems there’s one rule for Corrections (we don’t have to achieve anything) and another rule for Serco (you have to do better than us).

Anyway, Serco has to reduce reoffending by ten per cent less than zero. Sounds like a walk in the park – well it will be if more prisoners escape.

How NZ encourages repeat drink driving

Obviously, not everyone who drinks and drives has a drinking problem. But many do. For someone who does have a drinking problem, poor decision-making is almost inevitable. The offender’s ability to think clearly is impaired by the continued abuse or dependence on alcohol. This impaired capacity was highlighted by a potentially amusing story reported in the NZ Herald in November, 2008. A woman in Hastings who had been drinking got into her car to drive home and on the way home, she got a flat tyre. In her inebriated state, she dropped in at the local police station to ask for help. Not surprisingly, the police smelt alcohol on her breath and she was subsequently charged with drink driving.

This case illustrates that for some drinkers, the cognitive capacity for sensible decision-making is largely non-existent. They’re drunk when they make the decision to drink and drive. However, when it comes to sentencing, judges should have no such excuse. But when it comes to addressing the underlying problem, many judges seem to make equally poor decisions. They repeatedly fail to order 95% of drink drivers to attend an assessment to find out if they have a drinking problem.

The shortage of treatment programmes 

In 2010, judges told the Law Commission they struggle to order offenders into treatment because of the shortage of treatment facilities in the community.  This argument has considerable merit. Numerous residential treatment programmes have closed in the last ten years and there are long waiting lists for those that still exist. But in some regions, courts don’t seem to be aware that funding is available from the Justice Department itself to pay for alcohol and drug assessments on these offenders. Judges in Wellington are an exception to this and utilise 80% of the $1 million put aside for these assessments.

This judicial reluctance to get offenders assessed is not confined to the rehabilitation of drink drivers. About 130,000 people are convicted in New Zealand each year for a huge variety of offences – 80% of it alcohol and drug related. However, judges order only about 5% of all offenders who appear in Court to have an AOD assessment.

Weak penalties for drink drivers in NZ

At the same time, New Zealand has some of the weakest penalties for drink driving in the western world. In Britain and Canada (and many states in the US), a 1st drink driving offence incurs a minimum disqualification period of one year. In New Zealand, the minimum is only six months for the 1st and 2nd conviction; a mandatory one year disqualification is only imposed for a 3rd offence. In Australia, a 2nd or subsequent offence incurs a minimum of three years disqualification. In Canada a 2nd offence leads to a two year disqualification. In Britain, drink drivers get three years for a 2nd offence.

Also, these other countries generally require drink drivers to attend counselling or treatment for their drinking problem before getting their drivers licence back. In New Zealand, 95% of drink drivers automatically get their driver’s licence back at the end of their period of disqualification – without even being assessed to see whether they have a drinking problem. One is inevitably led to the conclusion that the government and the  justice system have little interest in rehabilitation and little commitment to dealing with the underlying causes of offending. In fact, our system does so little to stop drink-drivers from drinking or driving that it ‘enables’ and encourages this kind of offending to continue.

14,000 prisoners on remand excluded from rehabilitation

More than 20,000 people spend time in New Zealand prisons every year and most are excluded from rehabilitation programmes. Being illiterate is one of the excluding criteria. Those on short sentences are also excluded. However, the largest cohort of prisoners prevented from attending are those on remand awaiting trial or sentencing. 14,000 New Zealanders end up in this situation every year – some for just a few weeks, others for years.

British research on remand prisoners:  There are very good reasons to start rehabilitation while offenders are on remand. British research has found that remand prisoners tend to experience very high levels of social deprivation. They are five times more likely than sentenced prisoners to have lived in a hostel prior to imprisonment and are less likely to have had a job. They also have higher levels of drug dependency.

In 2005, Britain’s Home Affairs Committee produced a report on rehabilitation issues and recommended that:

“Remand prisoners should undergo a needs assessment on reception to prison, including mandatory drug testing, and the Prison Service should develop a separate prison regime tailored to meet their specific needs. This regime should include a short induction programme, education and work opportunities and drug and alcohol treatment programmes, with arrangements in place for continuation of treatment and programmes in the community…

“Time in prison can offer a window of opportunity to start to change. These measures are especially relevant to remand and short-term prisoners, because they are more likely to be in prison for drug-motivated crimes, and treatment is more urgent because they will be released sooner”.

New Zealand research: There is little research in New Zealand on the level of drug abuse and social exclusion experienced by prisoners on remand. But the thrust of the argument made by the British Home Affairs Committee applies equally well in New Zealand. Since 80% of crime is committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the average remand prisoner is highly likely to have problems with substance abuse. They often have unstable accommodation and are sometimes remanded in prison simply because they have nowhere to live.

We even build prisons especially for them. Earlier this year, the Corrections Department spent $218 million on a brand new prison in Mt Eden with nearly 1,000 beds – just to accommodate remand prisoners in Auckland. Although it houses up to 1,000 prisoners at a time, many more will spend time there in the course of a year. Not one of them will be allowed to attend a rehabilitation programme.

Why the justice system is so ineffective

In my new book,  Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct, I identify three stages in the system where intervention could occur – but generally doesn’t.

1) In Court: The first is when offenders appear in Court. Research indicates that over 80% of all offending occurs under the influence of alcohol and drugs – but judges order alcohol and drug assessments on only 5% to 10% of all those who appear in  Court. Even with drink drivers, where the link with alcohol is obvious, the courts still order only a small percentage to be assessed, and even less to attend treatment.

2) In prison: The second stage is when offenders are sent to prison. The National government is in the process of doubling the availability of addiction treatment in prison so that 1,000 inmates a year can attend. But over 20,000 New Zealanders spend time incarcerated each year – most on short sentences. Doubling the availability of substance abuse treatment still allows only 5% of those in prison to attend. Flying Blind identifies numerous other obstacles that stand in the way of prisoners attending rehabilitation programmes.

3) On release from prison: The third stage is when prisoners are released. Many, if not most, prisoners come from dysfunctional families and have been subject of multiple trauma and adversity as they grew up. On release, they often require accommodation, a job and pro-social support if they are to avoid relapsing to alcohol and drugs and avoid re-offending.  The Corrections Department does not prioritize the reintegration of prison inmates and provides supported accommodation for less than 1% of prisoners on release – compared with 60% in Canada where re-offending rates are much lower. Flying Blind identifies this as one of the main factors contributing to New Zealand’s high rate of recidivism.

It makes the case that the lack of rehabilitation and support provided to criminals creates a vicious cycle from which it is almost impossible for a drug or alcohol addicted offender to escape – which is why the justice system is so ineffective. The final chapter of the book concludes:

“This is not a system which delivers justice. It delivers retribution and temporary containment – but very little else. It doesn’t rehabilitate and it certainly doesn’t reintegrate. It doesn’t deliver deterrence, no matter what uninformed politicians may think, and it certainly doesn’t keep the community safe. “

Only 5% of prisoners receive drug treatment

To put it politely, Corrections Minister Judith Collins is an accomplished spinner:

1) Incorrect figures:

She claims that two thirds of prisoners have problems with alcohol and drugs. But Ms Collins is misinformed. The figure of two thirds is the percentage of prisoners that, in 2008, had substance abuse treatment listed as part of their sentence plan – hardly a reliable source of information.

The reality is that sentence planners are not trained at assessing alcohol and drug dependence and the problem is much worse than the Minister claims.  The most recent independent research on the prevalence of alcohol and drug use problems among prisoners in New Zealand puts the figure between 84% and 89%.

2) The real figures:

Collins regularly claims that Government has doubled the availability of drug treatment in prison – from 500 to 1,000 places a year. It sounds impressive. But each year over 20,000 people spend time in prison – the vast majority with alcohol and drug problems. If 1,000 prisoners a year attend treatment, that’s less than 5% of the total. Doubling the availability of drug treatment in prison is not what it seems.

3) What it costs:

Ms Collins claims that doubling the number of prisoners in treatment targets one of the key drivers of crime – and that in 2009/10 Corrections spent $137.5 million on rehabilitation and reintegration. What she doesn’t say is that only $4.7 million is spent on drug treatment in prison.

Compare that with the $6 million being spent on new uniforms for prison officers (starting in September); or $11 million spent on cell phone blocking technology which doesn’t work; or $12 million to cover VIP transport arrangements for the World Rugby Cup, including use of 34 brand new BMWs recently purchased by government for the discounted price of $4.7 million – the same amount spent on drug treatment..


When there are over 20,000 offenders circulating through New Zealand prisons each year; when crime costs the country $11 billion a year – and most of it is alcohol and drug related; when recidivism is at an all time high – the $4.7 million spent on drug treatment in prison is pathetic. When the Government spends more on new uniforms and BMWs than on drug treatment, any claims by Judith Collins that reducing re-offending is a Government priority are part of Corrections’ campaign of misinformation.

To separate the spin from the facts, read Roger Brooking’s: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.

7,000 prisoners on short sentences excluded from rehabilitation

Over 7,000 people in New Zealand are sent to prison each year on ‘short sentences’ – defined by the Corrections Department as two years or less.  In fact, 80% of all those sent to prison are given short sentences – and are automatically released after serving half of their time.  Only offenders imprisoned for two years or more serve their whole sentence – unless the Parole Board releases them earlier. Ever since the Graeme Burton debacle, most of those on ‘long’ sentences now serve at least two thirds.

Because short-term prisoners not there for very long, the Corrections Department does not generally allow them to attend education, training or rehabilitation programmes. The Department’s website says: “The amount of time to be served (by those on short term sentences) is likely to severely limit the offender’s opportunities… This means it is very unlikely that these offenders will attend rehabilitative programmes while in prison.”  

The revolving prison door

Many offenders given short sentences commit ‘public nuisance’ type offending – usually under the influence of alcohol. Often they are in and out of prison again and again without attending any kind of intervention. To get into a rehabilitation programme in prison, they have to commit a more serious offence and receive a sentence of more than two years – otherwise they’re not likely to be eligible.

In other words, out of the thousands of New Zealanders sent to prison in the last 50 years, 80% have not been allowed to attend any rehabilitation programmes – because their offending was not considered serious enough. So they sit around for up to a year with virtually nothing to do – as described in the Ombudsman’s report on the treatment of prisoners in 2006.

A drop in the bucket

It may be that this short-sighted approach is beginning to change. In June 2010, a three-month alcohol and drug programme began at Otago prison targeted at short-term offenders. This will allow around 120 short-term inmates to receive treatment. In November 2010, another drug treatment unit (DTU) opened at an Auckland prison. A third DTU opened at the Wanganui prison in Septemeber 2011, enabling the number of short-term inmates eligible to receive alcohol and drug treatment to about 500 per year. That’s 500 places for 7,000 prisoners sent to prison each year on short sentences – little more than a drop in the proverbial bucket. Since the vast majority of those in prison have alcohol and drug problems, they will still miss out.

Want to know more about our crazy prison system? Get the inside story from: Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct. 

Illiterate prisoners not allowed to attend rehabilitation

According to Corrections Minister, Judith Collins, 90% of prisoners have low literacy levels. She acknowledges this is a problem but claims to be tackling the issue. Launching a ‘Prisoner Skills and Employment Strategy’ in October 2009, she said:

“For many prisoners, re-offending is perhaps less a matter of choice than the result of them being poorly equipped to lead a law-abiding and productive life. The skills they lack seem fundamental to the rest of us. Approximately 90% of prisoners have low literacy levels.” The Minister stressed to those attending the launch that prisoner training and employment was a ‘must have’, not a ‘nice to have’.

Continuing this theme, in June 2011, Ms Collins said: “It makes sense that if you… teach them to read and write and help them develop a good work ethic, you reduce the risk of them committing crime when they leave prison.”

Only 1.5% succeeding

It sounds like she really cares. But if 90% of prisoners have problems with reading and writing, surely the Department would make literacy classes a top priority for the majority of inmates. But it struggles to provide classes for more than a few. In 2005, the NZ Herald reported that only 353 inmates attended literacy classes and nearly half of the $3 million education budget went unspent.

Five years later (2010), Dr David Wales, Assistant General Manager for Rehabilitation and Reintegration Services, claimed 1,496 prisoners attended classroom based literacy and numeracy education. That sounds like an improvement – but these figures are deceptive. The Department’s Annual Report says only 9% were assessed by their tutors as having reached a satisfactory level and actually completed the programme.

Nine per cent of 1,496 is only 135 prisoners – even less than attended in 2005. What’s worse, the figure of 135 represents only 1.5% of the prison muster. That’s a disgrace.

Illiteracy an obstacle to rehabilitation

And the ramifications are serious. Prisoners who are unable to read and write are not permitted to attend other rehabilitation programmes (because they require literacy skills). In other words, illiterate prisoners are not allowed to attend programmes which target the causes of offending such as alcohol and drug abuse, anti-social thinking, violence, sexual offending, etc. They have to learn to read and write first. No wonder so many ex-prisoners relapse to alcohol and drugs and re-offend on release.

The lack of literacy is prison is akin to literacy levels in the dark ages. For the vast majority of people who end up in prison, literacy and employment training still remain something that would be ‘nice to have’ – no matter what the Minister may claim.

This issue is discussed at length in Roger Brooking’s new book – Flying Blind – How the justice system perpetuates crime and the Corrections Department fails to correct.